When is record-keeping better arranged through a blockchain than through a traditional centralized intermediary? The ideal qualities of any record-keeping system are (i) correctness, (ii) decentralization, and (iii) cost efficiency. We point out a blockchain trilemma: no ledger can satisfy all three properties simultaneously. A centralized record-keeper extracts rents due to its monopoly on the ledger. Its franchise value dynamically incentivizes correct reporting. Blockchains drive down rents by allowing for free entry of record-keepers and portability of information to competing “forks.” Blockchains must, therefore, provide static incentives for correctness through computationally expensive proof-of-work algorithms and permit record-keepers to roll back history in order to undo fraudulent reports. While blockchains can keep track of ownership transfers, enforcement of possession rights is often better complemented by centralized record-keeping.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25407